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Wells House

A Grade II* Listed Building in Clerkenwell, Islington

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Latitude: 51.5286 / 51°31'42"N

Longitude: -0.1059 / 0°6'21"W

OS Eastings: 531489

OS Northings: 182773

OS Grid: TQ314827

Mapcode National: GBR N6.C7

Mapcode Global: VHGQT.3VW2

Plus Code: 9C3XGVHV+CM

Entry Name: Wells House

Listing Date: 22 December 1998

Grade: II*

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1246683

English Heritage Legacy ID: 471988

Location: Clerkenwell, Islington, London, EC1R

County: Islington

Electoral Ward/Division: Clerkenwell

Built-Up Area: Islington

Traditional County: Middlesex

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Greater London

Church of England Parish: Clerkenwell St Mark

Church of England Diocese: London

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TQ 3182 NE

Wells House

Block of 48 flats. Designed in 1938 for Finsbury Metropolitan Borough by Lubetkin and Tecton, revised design built 1946-9; completed work published in the name of Skinner and Lubetkin. Ove Arup and Partners, engineers.

Innovative reinforced concrete box frame, with expansion joints, the staircases carded as balanced cantilevers off a central spine stabilised bv the twin columns of the lift shaft. The open egg crate structure enabled Lubetkin, assisted by C.L.P Franck, to devise an elaborately patterned exterior of brown brick, with tiled ends and balconies and dark red cast- iron railings and grilles. Red pointing and grouting a distinctive feature. Six flats per floor, those to upper floors served by three lift towers, with living rooms to the street and two or three bedrooms facing quiet internal courtyard. One bed and bedsitter flats on ground floor reached by access deck.

Eight storeys, with parabolic roof designed aerodynamically to provide drying facilities and rounded lift tops and basement district heating. Principle elevation overlooking park devised by Tecton on Rosebery Avenue with balconies set with line of block in front of kitchens. The whole elevation expressed as a grid, set in frame provided by high parapet and tiled ends, with separate framing giving emphasis to centrepiece - which does not reflect the internal partitions of the flats.The ground floor set back, with the upper stories set on pilotis. The concrete balconies tile clad, with sections of decorative ironwork forming contrasting patterns on each floor to give rich chequerboard texture to the block, based, said Lubetkin, on Caucasian carpet patterns in his native Georgia. Metal concrete seats incorporated within posts a feature of the elevation to Rosebery Avenue.

Rear elevation simpler, with windows in concrete surrounds and chequer-pattern open ventilation grilles to stairs. Ramped entrance loggia of cantilevered concrete, with ramps either side of central door, giving on to deck access one-bed and bedsitter flats on ground floor.

Interiors carefully designed and finished to a high standard, with timber floors. The fitted kitchens linked by hatch to living room, were a 'revelation for working class housing' (Coe and Reading) and are noted for its Garchey system of refused disposal (the first in London and the only one anywhere still known to be in operation). The flats served by a district heating system set under Tunbridge House. The shape of the aerofoil-shaped drying areas resulted from a series of experiments with the scientist Hyman Levy.

The Spa Green Estate is the first and finest scheme of public housing by this celebrated firm, working for Finsbury Metropolitan Borough for whom they had completed a pioneering health centre (q.v Pine Street) in 1938. Lubetkin and Tecton were noted for their commitment to public building. They had won a much publicised ideas competition for working class flats in 1935 - yet had been frustrated in the 1930s since their private Highpoint (Haringey) also listed, was so successful it went rapidly up market. Spa Green was designed before the war for a smaller site, but wartime bombing enabled the blocks to be better placed. The war also enabled Tecton to continue their investigative approach to architectural design and rational planning and it saw the development of Ove Arup's box frame or egg crate system which was to transform post-war building. By placing the structure in the side walls and floors the elevations were freed up for the patterning and texture that make Lubetkin's post-war work so distinctive. 'Too often in Contemporary buildings of this kind the elevational proportions, with their repetitive rhythm of openings, seem to form a part of a continuous band of indeterminate limits, which could be snipped off by the yard at any point' Lubetkin told the Architectural Review (1951). This is not the case here. Wells House and Tunbridge House form a mirrored near-pair, set back to back.

The foundation stone was laid by Aneurin Bevan, Minister of Health and Housing on 26 July 1946. Spa Green is included at a high grade because the box frame was devised by Ove Arup especially for the development, though one small block was used earlier (Brett Manor, Hackney). It was the work in which Lubetkin at last expressed his ideas on low-cost public housing, simply but without the cost limits that constrained his later work. Every detail of exterior and interior is carefully thought out and finely finished. It is the most important post-war development by the most thoughtful and inventive pioneer of the modern movement in Britain. 'In this scheme the town planning interest, the structural interest, and the manipulation of structure and planning to arrive at an architectural totality of high quality epitomises the problem of high-density housing as the architect sees it, and offers one of the most interesting results yet obtained' (Sir John Summerson, 1959).

(Sir John Summerson, 1959. (Architectural Review: Volume 109: 1951: 138-140; Peter Coe Social Commitment: Bristol: 1981: 173 - 176; John Allan: Berthold Lubetkin, Architecture and the Tradition of Progress: London: 1992: 377-405; Trevor Dannat (introduction by Sir John Summerson): Modern Architecture in Britain: London: 1959: 24, 151-153).

Listing NGR: TQ3148982773

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